Wow and Wind

Anonymous writes, “this entire blog is an exercise in narcissistic pretense.” Hooray for anonymous! He/she is correct, as always. Pretense courses through every entry: things are omitted, rewritten, made readable, given “a style, a voice”… there lurks in the background that pretentious word “literary.” I can’t, therefore, present myself, whoever that might be; I seem to present how I imagine myself, or even how I imagine others imagine me, or–and these are the parts I admit, in my narcissism, I like the best–myself as illuminated by certain passages of music, the cross-section between my persona and certain sound patterns… Some parts of Jeremy Denk: did they exist until I encountered particular phrases, pieces of music? Chicken and egg: until the “Dumky” Trio, was humanity’s sense of nostalgia less rich? (Or did “Dumky” depend entirely on preexisting emotional patterns in humanity?) Did those tender phrases permanently add to mankind’s emotional repertoire, give nostalgia a definitive auditory example?

Today (for me) is a joyous day, with a fresh cool wind blowing through the suburbs of Detroit… (oppressive summer lifts)… I am so happy today and part of this happiness is stuck to, glued to, the act of putting my hands down on the piano keys a certain way and coming up with a luminous, sensual sound, a sound of which I approve, which suggests further sounds, further motions, further pleasures. The exact equality of the intention and the result; motion=sound; idea=event. Me me me. But add to this the liberating fact that the music is already written for you (Dvorak, Mendelssohn for me tonight), so that you just “throw yourself into it.” I am a puppet with strings pulled by dead European composers; but I love it, this willing marionette is me. Don’t you think the puppet influences the puppeteer? I think so (in my narcissism). Dvorak depends on me to express something about Dvorak. Pooh on the people who say it’s all on the page; it most certainly is not.

In the puppet vein, I saw a production of Pierrot Lunaire this last weekend featuring Lucy Shelton’s riveting, completely possessed sprechstimme, a delightful life-sized Pierrot puppet (Blair Thomas puppet theatre of Chicago), and my fellow Oberlin alums, the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. The work was frantically staged, and all the musicians performed from memory! It was tremendous to watch Lucy interact with the puppet, to “literally” address Pierrot (who eventually is brought out, poor fellow, in a wheelchair); but my favorite part was how she and the puppet interacted with the instrumentalists (and even their instruments). Musicians are usually “left alone,” treated with deference (after all, they must concentrate!), but here they were treated irreverently, like just another part of the surreal gang. Music inspires choreography, which in turn rebounds back and influences the music, the musicians, draws them into the game… There they were, marching across the stage behind a prancing Pierrot, who jumps into the piano, turns back to look at them… the musicians in turn look back, as if to see what Pierrot is looking at… who or what are they looking for (is there some secret agent in the wings?)… Who or what is in charge? No member of the ensemble seemed to lead, to be privileged. Which to me is the perfect way to express the unhinged, expressionist mind.

I really liked the sense that the musicians were forced to confront their own creation (like a mad scientist, like Dr. Frankenstein); the music they were playing almost attacked them! There are musicians out there who aim to be pure, uninvolved channels for music to pass through, who look on impassively while their fingers create… For them, this Pierrot would be kind of a nightmare. I have never been able to pursue this ideal (never cherished it especially, either), except to the extent that you don’t want your personal involvement, your emotional attachment to the music to get “in your own way,” to hinder auditory expression. In my narcissism I find that the music keeps turning in on me, and vice versa, and I cannot stop this wheel from turning, except every so often to send it back the other way, like a pendulum or seesaw. And so this Pierrot was like an actualization of something I feel so often: the meddling of music in my personal life, its lack of boundaries, of respect for my “personal space.”

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  1. rb
    Posted June 16, 2005 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    the observer and the observed
    the hearer and the heard

    they need each other
    the space inside this circular dance is where the art is

    wonderful post Jeremy

  2. Margo
    Posted June 16, 2005 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    your writing is remarkable, inspiring even; and you’re a wonderful pianist as well (I heard you on NPR). Looking forward to your next post!


  3. Erin
    Posted June 17, 2005 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    If this is narcissism, I say “yay for narcissism! Go narcissism!”

  4. Anonymous
    Posted June 18, 2005 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Wow, as someone who has performed Pierrot Lunaire twice, I can’t even imagine doing any part of it without a score in front of me. I wish I could have seen that performance!

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Molly
    Posted August 29, 2005 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Blogging in general seems an exercise in narcissism, by nature, but can yield interesting results. I reference John Ashbery’s Wet Casements

    “The conception is interesting: to see, as though reflected
    In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through
    Their own eyes. A digest of their correct impressions of
    Self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your
    Ghostly transparent face…

    I shall keep to myself.
    I shall not repeat others’ comments about me.”

    Pierrot le Fou indeed.

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